Every so often the European Union conducts surveys to ascertain how the citizens in the member states feel about EU membership. The most recently published of these was conducted in the spring of this year (2008), and it has some interesting findings about Irish attitudes. We are amongst the most enthusiastic Europeans: 73 per cent of us believe that EU membership is a good thing – the second highest percentage in Europe, just behind the Netherlands at 75 per cent, and equal to the citizens of Luxembourg, and just ahead of the (aspirational) views of the people of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, not yet in membership but feeling 72 per cent positive about the prospect. On the other end of the list, some of the newer member states have hardly got their foot in the door and their citizens have already become major Eurosceptics: only 29 per cent of Latvians, and 32 per cent of Hungarians, think their membership is good for the country.
Curiously, while the Irish are amongst the most positive, when this is boiled down to specific issues it’s all just ho-hum for us. The survey asks what issues arising out of EU membership matter to people, and in other countries large majorities say they like the Euro, the say it gives Europe in the world, peace and stability and so forth; and others cite the negatives, such as loss of identity, waste of money and bureaucracy. And us: well, we don’t seem to care too much about either the good or the bad things; we’re not particularly enthused by the positives, and not particularly bothered by the negatives. It seems we like being in Europe, but we’re not absolutely sure why.
It’s this kind of woolly vagueness about Europe that probably dooms the increasingly problematic Treaty referendums. We’re OK with where we are, but we don’t have a sufficient feel for the European project to want to go anywhere else with it.
Some pro-Lisbon commentators in Ireland have blamed the government for the defeat of the proposal in the referendum in June of this year. I have to say I don’t buy that. I think the problem is that Europe has moved to develop a constitutional framework for the Union without having worked enough on shared constitutional values. I would suggest that if Lisbon had been put to a vote almost anywhere else it would also have suffered the same fate. I don’t actually believe that a strong anti-Europe groundswell is forming in Ireland, more a growing puzzlement as to what it’s all about and where it’s going. I suspect that a two page statement of values (depending of course on how framed) would stand a much better chance of success at the polls than dozens of pages of intricate text that, frankly, nobody is going to read.
Furthermore, a Treaty which has the following key statements in its preamble (where in fact you might have expected some philosophical underpinning of the strategy) isn’t going to set the world on fire:
(b) In the seventh, which shall become the eighth, recital, the words ‘of this Treaty’ shall be replaced by ‘of this Treaty and of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,’;
(c) In the eleventh, which shall become the twelfth, recital, the words ‘of this Treaty’ shall be replaced by ‘of this Treaty and of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,’ .
In fact, what Europe needs to develop much more strongly is a vision – not so much a vision of enlargement and empowerment of institutions, but a vision of our place in the world and how Europe can make a difference for the better.
Of course I have been unfair above in my comment and my quote. The ‘real’ Treaty is the consolidated version – i.e. the amended original Treaty establishing the European Economic Community, as it now reads (or would read) after the Lisbon amendments. But here we almost shoot into the opposite extreme: the first few articles are so brimming over with values on really everything that the impact is lost. Think of something modern and liberal, and it’s mentioned there somewhere. As you get into it, you almost expect to see a statement there as to the conduct of referees in the UEFA Champions’ League. It’s simply too much, too ‘motherhood-and-apple-strudel’, too unfocused.
I believe strongly that we should have voted yes to Lisbon, and feel that we have done ourselves some serious damage. But I also believe this was unstoppable, and I don’t think that it’s the government’s fault (while not denying that the campaign was not well run). I suspect that the Irish really were the proxy voters for the rest of Europe, who would mostly have voted the same way. And I was not impressed with the tut-tutting that came from other European leaders after the June referendum.
I believe that a functioning and visible European Union is hugely desirable, as we stand to get sidelined between the growth of the major Asian countries in the East and a perhaps resurgent United States under President Obama in the West. But we won’t get that as Europe is paralysed between weak and technocratic leadership at one level and insecure nationalisms at another. And because we can’t expect all that to come out of Brussels right now, we should make a start in Ireland. Not by trying to explain Lisbon (which is a lost cause), but by taking a lead in he debate on real values and areas for a European priority focus. We need a European (and Europe-wide) strategy that is visionary and makes some difficult choices. We need new life for a new European project.